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Employee Performance: Maximizing Average Performers

Rebecca GibsonReward and recognition, merit pay allocation, promotions — programs like these are usually designed to reward your Superstars, those employees who reach the highest levels of performance .

There’s nothing wrong with organizing your resources to reward your highest achieving employees. The top 10% to 15% of employees do, after all, drive a disproportionate amount of revenue and productivity in your organization and are probably identified as the organization’s future leaders. Your bottom 10% to 15% commands a disproportionate amount of your attention, as you work to pull them up within the range of acceptable performance or move them out of the organization. That leaves the middle 60% to 70%. Most of us don’t have a discernible strategy designed to manage the performance of our largest employee population. But what do we really know about our average performers (we’ll call them mid-performers)? Happy to stay in the middle or incapable of achieving more, they do the majority of the work (because they comprise such a large group), and are less interested in being in the limelight or climbing the advancement ladder. They may enjoy the camaraderie of working with their teammates and be satisfied by simply doing well in their current job, while having time to balance their family lives or other interests. When it comes to your “Steady Eddies,” you have three primary concerns:

  1. Some have the potential to increase their performance, becoming high-middle performers or Superstars.
  2. Some have the potential to decrease their performance, potentially becoming poor performers.
  3. Some will leave because they don’t feel their average contributions are valued.

The strategy to maximize mid-performers’ performance focuses on addressing each of these concerns by understanding your mid-performers more deeply, recognizing their contributions in ways that are meaningful to them and encouraging them to be the best they can be.

Getting Started

Average performers aren’t an amorphous group that can be lumped into a single category and uniformly addressed. Since these employees generally receive less attention and aren’t differentiated by performance above or below the average, you might find that you know less about what motivates them and who they really are.

Just like any employee, your mid-performers enjoy your interest in them, and with a little prompting, will probably tell you exactly what you need to know. Through your interactions with these employees, you should be able to identify the patterns and environmental characteristics that motivate (or demotivate) them to work at their peak. If you can’t, it’s time to get out there and learn more about them. The following two steps — easily integrated into your regular coaching or goal-setting conversations — will help you to learn more about your average performers.

Get to know their preferences and work requirements

What makes them tick? How do they perceive their own performance? Why are they mid- performers? Refer to the box on the facing page (“Get to Know Your Mid-Performer”) for suggested questions you can use to guide the conversation. The goal of this understanding, which is built over time, is to determine if their middle-of-the road performance is the maximum they’re capable of, or if they can be spurred on to higher levels.

Categorize them to customize performance management
Use the following mid-performer sub-categories to identify areas in which you may be able to affect performance.

Questions for Your Mid-Performer

  • You’re a consistently solid performer. How do
  • you feel about your contributions? Do you feel
  • you have everything you need to do your job the
  • absolutely best that you can?
  • Do you see yourself staying this job for the long
  • term?
  • What are your motivations for doing a solid job?
  • What is most important to you in a job?
  • What are the rewarding aspects of this job?
  • What do you not like about it?

Maxed-out effort. These employees (usually about 10% to 15% of mid-performers) are actually working at their maximum capability. They should be recognized and rewarded for their effort. Since their job challenges them, they are the most likely of this group to be satisfied.

Lack confidence. These employees are most comfortable flying under the radar because they don’t feel confident in their own abilities. You can help build their confidence through praise and recognition, assigning them responsibilities that allow them to be successful, as well as sharing your belief in their abilities and their capability to grow into a Superstar.

Perceive the costs of high-performance as too high, or the benefits too low. If you’re a manager or supervisor, chances are you, at some point, were recognized for your contributions (your “Superstar-ness”) and valued the opportunity to earn rewards (e.g., pay, recognition, promotion). This cycle — effort, performance and reward — drives many high-performers. Average performers, however, can look at the costs of additional effort as too high to justify the effort. For instance, if a frontline agent sees that supervisors work longer hours, he probably won’t be motivated to stand out in hopes of a future promotion. If the difference between merit increases for high and middle performers is only 3%, is it worth the extra hours and the extra effort? If the rewards allotted to high-performers don’t resonate with me, then I might be unlikely to work at 110%. Through getting to know your middle performers, you can start to identify if the rewards available to high performers are enough to incent your middle performers, too.

How to Manage Steady Eddies
The primary strategy for addressing the performance management challenge of midperformers is learning more about them and customizing your approach. Follow these additional guidelines to define the appropriate, differentiated approach for these employees:

1. Know their values and motivations. Part of getting to know your employees, beyond categorizing them, is understanding who they are as professionals and as people — their future hopes, how they feel valued and how they perceive their contributions. An employee raising a young family might value being able to forget about work the second they step out the door. Another employee might enjoy the creative aspects of the job, while being less motivated by the repetition of contact center work. Regardless of what you learn, use it to deepen your understanding of the employee and help him to realize his shortand long-term potential.

2. Take the time to set concrete goals. Goal setting for high and low performers is easy. Stretch goals for your high performers and improvement goals for your low performers. Middle performers? A combination of both! Help them set concrete goals that will increase both their contribution to the team’s goals and their satisfaction with the work that they do. The sidebar on page 6 offers sample goal-setting conversation starters.

3. Focus on recognizing their contributions and improving their contributions. Think about coaching middle performers as a two-pronged strategy. First, you want to maintain the steady, solid performance that you have. Second, you want to help them become even better. This requires a combination of praise for their valued contributions and honest conversations about areas where they should be focusing their improvement efforts. Skimp on one or the other of these two prongs and you’ll see either an employee who feels like his contributions are ignored, or an employee who becomes complacent and cynical from the lack of attention.

4. Move the performance bar. If you’re providing a positive, motivational work environment, individualized goal-setting, performance coaching and support, you should see performance improvements within your average performers. When that happens, raise performance bar as performance improves and the bell curve shifts. You may find it necessary to refine your performance standards and evaluation criteria to reflect this new reality of higher overall performance. This isn’t a bad thing, as it raises the bar for everyone, including your high and low performers.

5. Don’t treat everyone the same. While it’s important to be fair, equitable and operate within legal boundaries, that doesn’t mean that you have to treat everyone exactly the same. Actually, you shouldn’t! Performance management that shifts the performance bar requires more than a onesize- fits-all strategy that treats every employee the exact same way. While all employees are focused on organizational, contact center and team goals, the individual goals you set for them, the rewards and recognition you offer them, the tone of the conversations you have with them, all should reflect who they are as individuals, what makes them tick and what motivates them. You are much more likely to see performance that shines when you show that you know and value an employee.

Rebecca Gibson is a workplace learning and performance consultant and Principal of Learning Currents.

– Reprinted with permission from Contact Center Pipeline, www.contactcenterpipeline.com


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